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4th July


things you care about. The viva is a nerve-racking experience and the most difficult ones I have been involved in have been when the candidate is so nervous that words fail them or where they can't stop themselves talking. Give detailed but brief answers of between two and three minutes. The examiners will want a dialogue not a lecture. Also, they will want to hear what you have to say (it's important to speak up and speak clearly) but a hectoring diatribe will alienate them. Continuing the playing card metaphor, students must represent what they think and not fold.

Most PhD students fear the question that reveals that their work is based on a false premise and fundamentally flawed, a question that renders them speechless. Often in preparation for the viva a student will try to go through the potential questions that might be asked, but it is simply impossible to anticipate all of them. It is possible to prepare how to address or explain to the examiners the weak points in the argument or in the structure of a thesis. I often think that the best way to approach the examiners' questions is to be both intellectually open to what is raised but at the same time to defend the project's integrity and substance. Sometimes the examiners ask questions that result from misreading and misunderstanding the thesis. I have seen the indignation of an examiner evaporate on more than one occasion when the candidate responds by saying, "If you look on page 315 I have addressed that issue directly". What should a student do if

 


the question exposes a series of issues or consequences that s/he hadn't anticipated or dealt with? The young geographer I mentioned at the beginning described this as the moment when you have to "decide like playing cards whether to stick or twist". Sometimes it's better to 'stick' and acknowledge that the incisive question is a good one that will be given further thought. The other option is to 'twist': ask for another card and gamble on opening up the question further, challenging the consequences of the line of critique and the basis of the examiner's judgment. Part of the art of scholarship is deciding when to accept and learn from a criticism and when to challenge it and elaborate a new argument that extends what you have already written and develops what you want to convey.

The viva voce must establish that the thesis is the work of the student, that it has a coherent argument that makes a distinct contribution to knowledge; that it affords evidence of originality and is situated within the relevant literature in relation to the field of study. Keeping these criteria in mind demystifies the viva. At the end of the viva examiners will more often than not ask students if they have any questions. This can sometimes be very unnerving for students. After that students are asked to leave so that the examiners can confer and decide on the outcome and their recommendation. Once the outcome is known the examiners often discuss and give advice on where the work might be published and possible future

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19 August